HBO Launches Theatrical Division with Fine Line; O’Connor To Head Unit; “Elephant” Set As Second Release for Outfit
by Eugene Hernandez
With Thursday’s announcement of what it described as “an innovative distribution arrangement,” HBO Films has taken a full-fledged leap into U.S. theatrical distribution. Its partner in the initiative is AOL Time Warner cousin Fine Line Features, the specialty division of New Line. Dennis O’Connor is leaving his post as VP of marketing at United Artists to serve as head of HBO Films Domestic Theatrical Releasing. In the role, O’Connor will oversee the domestic theatrical distribution of titles released by HBO Films. He will be based in Los Angeles and report directly to HBO Films president Colin Callender. Fine Line President Mark Ordesky and Colin Callender discussed the announcement in separate conversations with indieWIRE on Thursday.
HBO Films will release Gus Van Sant’s Cannes 2003 Palme d’Or winner “Elephant” through Fine Line as part of the new initiative, on October 24. That will follow the release of the outfit’s first title, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “American Splendor” on August 15. Fine Line acquired “Splendor” shortly after Sundance and a broader deal emerged from there according to Mark Ordesky. The pact will send select HBO Films dramatic titles through the Fine Line distribution pipeline under the HBO Films banner, however it will not include HBO’s larger “event movies,” HBO’s Callender said. Nor will it include projects from the company’s acclaimed doc division as of yet. Releases will be co-branded by HBO Films and Fine Line Features.
“This was not a top down mandate (from AOL Time Warner),” Ordesky told indieWIRE, “It developed very organically from the ‘American Splendor’ deal in further discussions between Colin and myself.” Continuing he explained, “Ultimately the upper management people were very enthusiastic,” he said, referring to New Line’s Bob Shaye & Michael Lynne and HBO’s chairman Chris Albrecht. “It wasn’t a forced synergy.”
“At the heart of it,” explained Callender, “We didn’t simply want to be another producer licensing out (our movies), we wanted to be principles in this. We wanted to broaden the HBO name, we wanted a partnership in theatrical distribution.” He added that HBO had been approached by numerous companies interested in creating distribution arrangements for its titles.
Callender calls this the “last piece of the puzzle” for HBO Films following the company’s announcement in Cannes this year that it has launched a foreign sales operation, dubbed HBO Films London, and run by joint managing directors Rosa Bosch and Penny Wolf.
This is a deal that certainly reflects the growing importance of HBO Films as a major player in the independent and specialty films sector of the narrative film business. However, it does not yet include the numerous HBO documentary projects that are also prestigious films at festivals and in theaters. Colin Callender told indieWIRE that including HBO’s doc films under the new HBO Films/Fine Line initiative is still a matter under discussion with HBO executive vice president of original programming Sheila Nevins.
“We are having those conversations (with Nevins),” Callender said, “There are lots of opportunities. We are not quite sure where this will go, but that is part of the fun of this — we’ll see as things unfold.”
A number of documentary films from the New York based non-fiction division headed by Nevins are currently in release under the HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films banner, including “Capturing the Friedmans” through Magnolia Pictures, “Spellbound” through ThinkFilm, and “Balseros” (Cuban Rafters) through Seventh Art Releasing.
Fine Line’s Mark Ordesky explained that the value of the initiative is not only the ability to bring quality films to theaters through Fine Line but also the solid marketing and publicity team already in place at HBO. As they have on “American Splendor,” he indicated, his Fine Line group will collaborate on the releases with HBO, now with the leadership of O’Connor.
“HBO plus Fine Line is bigger than the sum of its parts,” Ordesky said. “This creates an even stronger team to get focus and attention for those titles.”
“It enables us to provide a home for filmmakers,” Callender offered, “A one-stop shopping, full service home for filmmakers where we can continue to make the sort of interesting, unusual, risk-taking movies that are increasingly difficult to finance and distribute effectively in this competitive marketplace.”
HBO Films will determine which films are to be released theatrically through the unit, but Ordesky was quick to clarify that this is not a “service deal” arrangement. “It’s an evolution,” Ordesky said, “HBO is not merely a program supplier, they are a marketing and promotion powerhouse, we have a great collaboration.”
“American Splendor” and “Elephant” will be the second and third releases for HBO Films, following the distribution of “Real Women Have Curves” in 2002. For that release, the company collaborated with Newmarket; the film earned more than $6 million in its theatrical run. Callender told indieWIRE that the company has only pegged those two films for release right now.
Other finished films that have been produced by HBO Films include Jim McKay’s recently shot low-budget feature “Brooklyn,” Carlo Gabriel Nero’s “The Fever” (based on Wallace Shawn’s play), Katja von Garnier’s “Iron Jawed Angels” (about women’s rights activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns), Stephen Hopkins’ “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (based on the book by Roger Lewis), John Leguizamo’s directorial debut “Undefeated,” and Mike Nichols’ direction of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of his own play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It stars Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and many others.
Dennis O’Connor served as head of marketing for UA for nearly two years, working on such films as “No Man’s Land,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “24 Hour Party People,” and “Igby Goes Down.” Prior to landing at UA, he served as VP of theatrical distribution at Universal Focus, head of the theatrical division at Trimark, head of marketing & distribution at Strand Releasing, and VP of marketing and distribution for First Look Pictures. He has also worked as a buyer for Landmark Theaters. O’Connor began his career at the Samuel Goldwyn Company, where he worked on “Henry V,” “Le Femme Nikita,” and “Wild At Heart.”